Design for Small Spaces: Little & Luxe

Attention to detail adds style and longevity to a North Portland duplex conversion.

By Amara Holstein March 22, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

“Play with volume. Compact rooms—like bedrooms and baths with low ceilings—can contrast with more voluminous rooms, increasing a sense of spaciousness.” —MICHELLE JERESEK, ARCHITECT

Once a dark space hemmed in by walls of bamboo outside, the upstairs has become an elegant, light-filled apartment. “We wanted to find a balance between a modern and period feel,” Becca Werlin says.

The recent inhabitants of Becca Werlin’s Humboldt duplex span a lifetime. A baby learned to crawl on the smooth concrete floors. Various young single professionals, from an architect to a lawyer, have lived in the modern-styled space downstairs. A couple got engaged in the sunny apartment upstairs. That couple’s parents recently rocked their granddaughter to sleep as the sun set through the home’s French doors. 

 “We wanted to make the space adaptable over time,” says Werlin, who works at the N Mississippi Avenue children’s boutique Black Wagon. “From parents with a newborn to aging grandparents to college-age students.”

The duplex was formerly a single-family home across the backyard from Werlin’s home with husband Eric Engstrom, a city planner. Decrepit with striped silver and purple wallpaper upstairs, the house had once been home base for a prostitute. Walls of bamboo formed a fortress outside, darkening the interior and blocking all views. “We figured that whoever bought it would tear it down,” recalls Werlin of their decision to buy. “We wanted to have control over what was there.” 

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French doors in the upstairs apartment open onto a tiny balcony where renters Jeremy Sande and Amy Dorius eat breakfast above the verdant backyard.

Werlin and Engstrom asked design principal Michelle Jeresek of local architecture firm Departure to reimagine the space as a duplex. “It was an odd configuration,” Jeresek says. “Splitting the house up from down made the most sense.” The couple had two goals for the future rental: keep the budget modest and retain the house’s 1902 historic detailing. Working with Hammer & Hand as a contractor, Jeresek kept the structure intact but gutted most of the interiors, tucking modern kitchens into the center of each apartment, with compact appliances keeping the footprints small.
Upstairs, she had the wood floors stripped of marmoleum and the walls painted in soft creams, greens, and grays. A pass-through window links living room and landing and lets in light from casement windows above. Downstairs, she transformed the formerly dank basement into a cool modern retreat, with an open layout and seamless concrete floors. 

Large glass doors in both apartments draw the eye to the lush garden outside, making the spaces feel larger than their respective 800 square feet. A smooth ramp curves around the house from the street to the entrance of the downstairs apartment, separating it from the upstairs unit’s front entry and making both spaces feel distinct. Tables and chairs under banana trees and flowering plums in the backyard give tenants an outdoor retreat.

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In the upstairs living room, boxes are both storage and sculpture, and decorative album covers hold actual records for the turntable.

“We thought everything through,” Werlin says. “We added a lot of luxe touches that make the units feel more like little jewel boxes than cardboard boxes.” Werlin spent hours foraging at the Rebuilding Center, uncovering items like a period bathroom sink and Pratt and Larson tile seconds to live alongside brand-new upgrades like drop pendant lights from Schoolhouse Electric. Hammer & Hand meticulously crafted every inch of the space, hand-carving the molding to replicate the original trim and custom-fabricating a countertop to wrap around the Ikea cabinetry. 

“It’s the nicest place we’ve lived together,” says Jeremy Sande, a land-use planner who lives in the upstairs unit with his partner, Amy Dorius, a medical student. “The quality of materials makes a huge difference,” he adds, noting a sense of both timelessness and time-liness. “Even though it’s small, it’s the perfect fit for us right now.”

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